Hugh Howey

The latest marketplace data would seem to say publishers are as strong as ever


This post began being written a couple of weeks ago when I recalled some specific misplaced expectations I had for the self-publishing revolution and started to ponder why things happened the way they did in recent years. It turns out a big part of the answer I was looking for provides clarity that extends far beyond my original question.

For a period of a few years that probably ended two or three years ago, we saw individual authors regularly crashing bestseller lists with self-published works. Some, like Amanda Hocking, parlayed their bootstrap efforts into significant publishing contracts. Others, like Hugh Howey, focused on building their own little enterprise and tried to use the publishing establishment for what it could do that a self-publisher couldn’t. (In what was certainly a very rare arrangement of this kind with a major indie author, Howey made a print-only deal for his bestseller, “Wool”, with Simon & Schuster. And he made foreign territory and language deals and Hollywood deals as well.) And we know that there were, and are, a slew of indie authors who self-publish through Amazon and don’t even bother to buy ISBN numbers to get universal distribution under a single title identifier, effectively keeping them out of bookstores.

All of this was enabled by three big changes to the historical book publishing and distribution ecosystem. One was the rise of ebooks, which simplified the challenge of putting book content into distributable form and getting it into the hands of consumers. The second was the near-perfection of print on demand technology, which enabled even print books to be offered with neither a significant investment in inventory nor the need for a warehouse to store it. And the third was the increased concentration of sales at a single retailer, Amazon. Between print and digital editions, Amazon sells half or more of the units on many titles and, indeed, may be approaching half the retail sales overall for the US industry.

(This is very hard to measure or even get reliable anecdata for. Amazon sells globally. Indeed, one of its great contributions to publishers is pretty seamlessly enabling them to reach export markets through a domestic supplier. But it also means that publishers can tend to see all Amazon sales as “domestic”, even when they’re not. US publishers are often telling us that half their sales are coming from Amazon, but how much of those sales are to offshore accounts is not consciously backed out of the numbers.)

What the rush of indie bestsellers told us a few years ago was that things had changed to the point that a single person with a computer could achieve sales numbers that would please a big corporation going after sales with the tools provided by tons of overhead: careful curation and development, sophisticated production capabilities, teams of marketers and publicists, legions of sales people, and acres of warehouse space. This had not been possible before ebooks. And the market reach of the amateur publisher was extended even further as Amazon’s share of print sales surged as a direct result of retail shelf space declining with Borders’s passing and Barnes & Noble’s shrinkage.

For a period of time that was relatively brief and which now has passed, agents and publishers worried that self-publishing could be appealing to authors they’d want in their ecosystem. The author’s share of the consumer dollar is much higher through self-publishing. And the idea of “control” is very appealing, even if the responsibility that goes with it is real and sometimes onerous.

So, I warned with what felt like prescience, entity self-publishing might present an even greater threat to publishers than independent authors would.

I was thinking about the scale value that publishers brought to producing revenue for books. Historically, that had been about capabilities that only a book publisher would have at its disposal, the tools we referred to earlier. With Ingram then adding a turnkey service called “Spark” to reach the half of the market that was not delivered by Amazon in the US, access to other ebook retailers wherever they are, and enabling print sales around the world, a publisher could “rent” all the infrastructure it would need to reach all the audience there is with two stops: Amazon and Ingram.

The entities that I had my eye on from the book publishers’ perspective were those already in the print content business: newspapers and magazines. They all start out with assets that would seem to lend themselves to creating and promoting books. They have access to vast number of writers, on staff and through work-for-hire arrangements. They have editors on staff as well as the knowledge of how to find and hire more for projects. They have direct online access to a large number of consumers, including the opportunity to know their interests in a very granular way. They have advertisers who could be useful for promoting books or even buying them in bulk.

But despite the fact that there was, indeed, a slew of activity 2-to-4 years ago from a variety of non-book publishing content entities to get into ebooks, there have been no apparent breakthroughs. Nobody has cracked the code. Nobody who is not a book publisher has used the rent-a-scale capabilities to build a sustained book business.

It is not that many haven’t tried, or are still trying. Among those who have been or are still in the game are The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, NBC, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and The Boston Globe. They have sometimes worked in conjunction with digital start-ups. For example, the New York Times worked with Vook (now called Pronoun and acquired earlier this year by Macmillan) and Byliner, whose original proposition was “short ebooks”.

There have been a variety of approaches to create the content. Sometimes these publications and websites have recycled their own material or used internal resources. The Boston Globe did an insta-book on Whitey Bulger and some on Boston sports teams, as well as creating a book of photos of Boston that had already run in the paper. (The Boston Bruins’ Stanley Cup championship was commemorated in a book delivered both in print and digital days after they won.) The Star-Tribune used internal staff to execute the mechanics of delivering ebooks. The Boston Globe’s Bulger book, published by Norton in print, showed them that they could do the ebook work themselves.

Obviously, the idea of book programs using magazine brands is not new with the digital age. Decades ago, Hearst, Rodale, and Meredith were all big magazine companies committed to real book programs, which was what it took to support the infrastructure or to form a close relationship with a publisher to provide it. Hearst has had a robust book program for a long time because they once owned the book publishers Morrow and Avon. When they were sold in the mid-1990s, the management saw virtue in maintaining the book program so they teamed up with Sterling Publishing for everything from assists creating the content to all the scaled book publishing functions. The relationship continues to this day, although Hearst also licenses other projects to other publishers. Rodale remains active in both books and magazines, with their own organization doing the books. And Meredith temporarily moved its book program from “independent” to publisher John Wiley. It is now a shadow of its former self.

Even in the simplified age we’re in now, leaning on a publisher with all the pieces in place can be a way to tackle the challenge of having an adequate infrastructure for books. I am currently reading a “Washington Post” ebook on climate change that was published in conjunction with Diversion Books, a digital-first publisher created by literary agent Scott Waxman during the height of the indie publishing ebook fever.

But searching for a surge in this kind of activity generated by the digital revolution consistently takes us back to two and four years ago. In 2012, Random House partnered with the website Politico to deliver four ebooks on the 2012 presidential race. We’re not aware of anything similar taking place this year. The Minnesota Star Tribune was pushing their ebook initiative in 2013. The Boston Globe got into the game in 2011. The Times did a story in 2011 about the phenomenon which covered a Vanity Fair ebook of collected articles about Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation when they were the caught in a scandal. Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, loved the whole idea. He loved the idea of publishing articles which had already been fact-checked and copy-edited. “It’s like having a loose-leaf binder and shoving new pages into it.”

The Byliner collaboration with the New York Times was first reported in 2012, and the Times started their initiative with Vook almost simultaneously. At the same time, programs were being announced in the UK by the Guardian and the Financial Times.

All of that inspired the pundit in me to say “watch out”. But there’s been a lot less activity since. It’s worth asking why.

Of course, there are logistical and organizational challenges to just bolting a book publishing program onto an existing content-creating entity. The writers and editors at newspapers and magazines are already fully employed; they’re not looking for additional things to do. And the job specs and incentive arrangements are all about the principal activity. The marketing mechanisms at a periodical publisher are, likewise, fully engaged. So the newspaper or magazine might have more powerful tools for some marketing purposes than a book publisher does, but no book operation inside one of them could get them dedicated to help sell books on anything but the most sporadic and opportunistic basis.

In addition to the fact that the sailors all have existing assignments, a book publishing initiative would also lack a captain. We observed a couple of years ago that one of the great indie publishing successes, a cookbook called “Modernist Cuisine”, carrying a price tag of $625 and published by Microsoft co-founder Nathan Myhrvold, was largely made possible by the leadership of a veteran publisher, Bruce Harris. Yes, Ingram did the “scale” work: printing, warehousing, selling, distributing. And it wouldn’t have been possible without them. But Harris worked out the commercial equations (what should the retail price be, for example) and the marketing campaign that carried it to its success.

There are other veteran publishers like Harris available to be engaged as consultants, but it is also much easier for a single entrepreneur like Myhrvold to make use of one than it would be to have them integrate with an existing organization formed for another purpose.

I asked indie-publishing experts Jane Friedman and Porter Anderson (their weekly “Hot Sheet” newsletter for independent authors is a great resource) for their take on the question I was posing: what happened to all those newspapers and magazine initiatives? Why did it seem that none of them achieved the success I was expecting?

Friedman drew on her experience at Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR), which had publishing ambitions based on ebook economies but ultimately abandoned them. She saw the “complications” falling into three buckets.

Clearing rights for projects with multiple authors, which VQR would have been frequently called upon to do, was challenging, time-consuming, and frustrating.

The organizational structure and staffing was far from optimal for a book publishing operation.

The profit potential was too small to make it worth the effort to overcome the other two problems.

But, even accepting all of that,  I’d suggest that the biggest reason this activity was so feverish 2-to-4 years ago and isn’t so much now was revealed first in a vitally important post by hybrid author and helper-of-indies Bob Mayer and then reiterated by the latest report from the Author Earnings website.

Mayer built an impressive business for himself by reissuing titles of his that had previously been successfully published and gone out of print. He spells out clearly what has changed since the days of big indie success and the plethora of entity-based publishing initiatives.

The marketplace has been flooded. An industry that used to produce one or two hundred thousand titles a year now produces over a million. Nothing ages out of availability anymore. Even without POD keeping books in print, ebooks and used books make sure that almost nothing ever disappears completely. And Mayer’s sales across a wide range of titles — his and other authors whom he has helped — reflect the mushrooming competition. They’re down sharply, as are the sales of just about everybody he knows.

What Mayer wrote tended to confirm that the breakthrough indie authors happened far more frequently before the market was flooded. Authors who struck it rich in 2010 and 2011 (like Hugh Howey) were lucky to get in before the glut. Recommending that somebody try to do the same thing in 2013 or 2014 was telling them to swim in a pool with water of a completely different temperature.

On the heels of Mayer’s piece, Author Earnings made discoveries that seemed to startle even them. For those who don’t know, AE is a data collection and analysis operation put together by indie author Hugh Howey teamed with the anonymous analyst “Data Guy”. The AE emphasis is on what the author gets, (“a site for authors by authors” is what they call themselves) with less interest in what publishers want to know: how topline ebook revenues are shifting.

According to the industry’s best analyst, Michael Cader, the most recent AE report shows, for the first time since they’ve been tracking it, a reduction in earnings for indie authors and an increase for published authors. (Cader may have a paywall; here’s another report from Publishing Perspectives.) But even more startling is the shift in revenue. Publishers have booked 65% of Kindle revenues and Amazon Publishing has 10%. They put self-published authors at 20%, which is down from 25% previously.

It is not a big surprise that Amazon Publishing is able to grow its own share of Kindle revenue. But the fact that publishers are holding their own, in the aggregate, while indie authors are not, underscores the challenge that non-publisher books are facing. The title output of publishers has remained relatively flat. The title output of indies has surged. So the per title sales of indie books must be collapsing relative to the publishers’ output.

What this is telling us is that, whatever deficiencies there are in the way publishers are organized for publishing today, they clearly are able to marshal their resources more effectively for book after book than indies can. So, not only does the “entity publisher” have the challenge of refocusing an organization designed for something else to sell books, they’re fighting a tidal wave of competition that enters the market because of the low barriers to entry. In fact, if you were at a newspaper or magazine today and thinking about putting your company into the book business, there would be powerful arguments to follow the Hearst formulation of creating a home inside an established book publisher rather than building a low-overhead operation for yourself. But that option has always been available; it didn’t require a digital revolution to deliver it.

A lot has been made of the fact that big publishers are seeing topline revenue erosion across print and digital. But the ability for readers to consume books has, at best, remained flat (there are so many more distractions immediately available these days) and the number to choose from has exploded. That means the per-title sales are plummeting. Per-title sales are what tell us whether publishers or independent authors can make any money. And the math is clear: it is getting harder and harder to do so, but it seems to be getting harder faster for the indies than it is for the established publishers.

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In an indie-dominant world, what happens to the high-cost non-fiction?


I first learned and wrote about Hugh Howey about four years ago. At the time, he was one of the first real breakthrough successes as an indie author, making tens of thousands of dollars a month exclusively through Amazon for his self-published futurist novel, “Wool”. As soon as I could track him down, I invited Hugh and his agent, Kristin Nelson, to speak at the next Digital Book World, which they did several months later, in January 2013.

In the years since, Hugh has had a very public profile as a champion of indie publishing and as a critic of big publishers. When I first encountered Howey, he and his agent had already turned down more than one six-figure publishing deal. Nelson ultimately did a print-only deal for “Wool” with Simon & Schuster, a deal consummated before the big publishers made the apparently-universal decision that they would not sign books for which they didn’t get electronic rights.

This week there was a lengthy interview with Howey done by DBW editor Daniel Berkowitz published on the DBW blog. In this piece, Howey reviews many of his complaints against publishers. According to him, their royalty rates are too low and they pay too infrequently and on too much of a delay. Their authors are excluded from Kindle’s subscription revenue at Kindle Unlimited. Their ebook prices to consumers are too high. And, on top of that, they pay too much rent to be in New York City and they pay their big advances to wealthy authors who don’t really need the money, while aspiring authors get token advance payments that aren’t enough to give them time off to write.

Howey’s observations are not particularly welcomed by publishers, but he has a deep interest in indie authors and, by his lights, is always trying to help them by encouraging them to indie-publish through Amazon rather than seeking a traditional deal through an agent. He has organized the AuthorEarnings website and data repository along with Data Guy, the games-business data analyst who has turned his analytical skills to the book business whom we featured at the most recent Digital Book World this past March.

Howey and I have had numerous private conversations over the years. He’s intelligent and sincere in his beliefs and truly devotes his energy to “industry education” motivated by his desire to help other authors. Yet there are holes in his analysis of the industry and where it is going that he doesn’t fill. Given his substantial following and obvious comfort level doing the marketing (such as it is, and it appears Howey’s success as an author hasn’t required much) for his own books as well as his commercial performance, it is easy to understand why he would never consider publishing any other way but as he has, as an indie author who is “all in” with Amazon. But he seems to think what worked well for him would work best for anybody.

In this interview, Howey says that any author would be better off self-publishing his or her first book than going the route of selling it to a publisher. And he actually dismisses the marketing effort required to do that. Howey says the best marketing is publishing your next book. He thinks the best strategy is for authors to write several books a year to gain success. In fact, he says taking time away from writing to do marketing is a bad choice. Expecting most writers, or even many writers, to do several books a year strikes me as a highly dubious proposition.

It is impossible to quarrel with the fact of Howey’s success. But he makes a big mistake assuming that what worked effectively for him makes self-publishing the right path for anybody else, let alone everybody else.

Howey also has an unrealistically limited view of the output of big publishing. If you read this interview (and I would encourage anybody interested in the book business to do so), you see that he thinks almost exclusively about fiction or, as he puts it, “storytelling”. Books come, like his did, out of an author’s imagination and all the author needs is the time to write. Exposure through Amazon does the rest.

He gives publishers credit for putting books into stores (although he would have them eliminate returns, which would cut down sharply on how effectively they accomplished that). But he thinks stores will be of diminishing importance. (We certainly agree on that.) He gives credit for the indie bookstore resurgence to Amazon, which would be true if you credit Amazon with the demise of Borders that wiped out over 400 big bookstores and created new opportunities for indies. But the idea that Amazon is allied with indie bookstores is contradicted by two realities. One is that the indie stores won’t stock Amazon-published books. The other is that Amazon, now in the process of opening its second retail store, may plan dozens, hundreds, or thousands more to come! We really don’t know. Certainly, very few indie bookstores would be applauding that.

Here’s how Howey sums up his advice to authors.

“Too few successful self-pubbed authors talk about the incredible hours and hard work they put in, so it all seems so easy and attainable. The truth is, you’ve got to outwork most other authors out there. You’ve got to think about writing a few novels a year for several years before you even know if you’ve got what it takes. Most authors give up before they give themselves a chance. It’s similar to how publishers give up on authors before they truly have a chance.”

This seems like sound advice, but it isn’t how it appeared to work for Howey. He published a novella which was the start of Wool and his Amazon audience asked for more. Three more novellas later, over a period of just a few months, and the four combined became his bestselling novel. Six months after he started, he was making $50,000 a month or more and had an agent selling his film rights. Then his agent started selling his book rights in non-US territories and in other languages. Meanwhile, Howey continued to earn 70 percent of the revenues from his ebooks, in a deal Amazon offered that matched what they paid to agency publishers, the biggest publishers. (Would Amazon be paying authors 70 percent if publishers hadn’t come up with that number for agency? Should big publishers get some of the credit for the very good deal indie authors are getting?)

The logic that Howey offers about how self-publishing stacks up against doing deals with a big house is very persuasive, but there are two pieces of reality that contradict it.

One is that, at this time, four years after Howey did “Wool” and eight years after the launch of Kindle, there are no noteworthy authors who have abandoned their publishing deals for self-publishing. (It appeared briefly that Barry Eisler was the first such author, except that it turned out he signed an Amazon Publishing deal after turning down a Big Six contract; he didn’t go indie. And, frankly, while he’s somewhat successful, he’s not a show-stopper author for any publisher.) In fact, Amazon’s own publishing strategy has apparently switched away from trying to persuade big commercial fiction authors to do that and is focused on the genre fiction that is the core of the self-publishing done through them. Howey has been offering the same analysis for quite a few years now but so far, the publishers have lost hardly anybody they care to keep to self-publishing. And we’re now in a period where the split of books sold online (ebooks and print) to books sold in stores (where publishers are beyond helpful; they’re necessary) appears to have stabilized — at least for the time being — after years of stores losing share.

The other is that Howey’s analysis totally leaves out one of the biggest categories of publishing: big non-fiction like history or biographies or industry analyses that take years of research and dedication to complete. Unlike a lot of fiction, those books not only take time, they require serious help and expense to research. In a imagined future world where all books are self-published, aspiring fiction writers give up very little (small advances) and successful fiction authors have the money to eat while they write the next book they can make even more money on doing it the Howey way (even though none have). But big non-fiction books like Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money” (or anything by David McCullough) took years of research to put together. “Dark Money” was undoubtedly financed at a very high level by the Doubleday imprint at Penguin Random House. How books like that will be funded in the future is not covered by Howey’s analysis.

Now, that’s not to say they must be. Economic realities do rule. Howey’s thesis that things are shifting in Amazon’s direction and away from the ecosystem that has sustained big book publishers is correct. He predicts that there will be three big publishers where once there were six and now there are five. I concur with that. As that happens, maybe the big fiction writers will take Howey’s advice.

But that solution is no solution for authors like Jane Mayer or David McCullough. A world without publishers where authors do the writing and the publishing might give us an output of fiction comparable to what we have now. But the biggest and best non-fiction would need another model if publishers weren’t able to take six-figure investment risks to support them. Amazon’s not offering it and neither is Howey. If the future unfolds as Howey imagines it, we’ll never know what books we’re missing.

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Agents who come to Digital Book World will learn a lot they can immediately apply


The mission of the Digital Book World conference is industry education around digital change. There is a plethora of programming for this year’s event that will serve that purpose particularly well for literary agents. Of all the people in the industry, it would seem to me that agents would get the fastest and surest “return on investment” for the time and expense of attending DBW.

At the top of the “definitely not to be missed” list for agents are two items: the main stage presentation and breakout Q&A by Data Guy, the stats guru of Hugh Howey’s “Author Earnings” website, and the panel discussion called “Finding Common Ground: How publishers and authors — regardless of what path they’re taking — are working together”.

Really necessary knowledge will also be delivered by Michael Cader, immediately preceeding Data Guy’s appearance, when he reviews the sources of industry data and clarifies what can realistically be discerned from them and what can’t. One more set of information no informed agent can be without will come from Rand Fishkin, the founder, former CEO, and Wizard of Moz, who knows more about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and explains it better than anybody on the planet. Understanding SEO today is as important for everybody in our business as understanding “advance sale” or “coop advertising” was in years past.

And, speaking of “coop advertising”, DBW will also feature an appearance by Fred Argir, the new Chief Digital Officer at Barnes & Noble. In a conversation with me, he will be laying out some insights from the biggest bookstore chain on new ways they might collaborate on marketing with publishers in the future.

The Author Earnings website scrapes and interprets Amazon data, breaking down Amazon bestsellers by publisher type: Big Five, indie authors, and others. Then AE goes further, trying to calculate what share of the revenue went to authors. Recent enhancements to AE’s data collection have improved the precision of their sales and income estimates. They’re showing steady market share gains by indie authors with their lower-priced books, particularly since in their new contracts the publishers have “succeeded” in preventing discounting from their agency prices.

Any agent trying to advise an author curious about or tempted by self-publishing really must know what Data Guy is up to. This will be DG’s first public presentation. His breakout Q&A will be moderated by Michael Cader, so the most knowledgeable industry perspective will be present as DG delivers his compelling alternative view of our sales universe.

The “Common Ground” panel explores the new reality that author efforts constitute a critical component of all book marketing today. Jane Friedman, the leading indie author Sherpa in our business, will moderate a panel of two agents and two editors with extensive experience working with authors who have published both indie and through houses. Jane Dystel of Dystel & Goderich and Julie Trelstad of Writers House are the agents; Johanna Castillo of Atria (S&S) and Jaime Levine of Diversion Books are the publishers. These five people will draw on recent experience with dozens of authors to help us understand the current state-of-the-art for author and publisher collaboration around marketing.

The challenge of “discovery” or helping readers find their “next book” has been moving up the industry agenda since Digital Book World started in 2010. Rand Fishkin of Moz will be focusing on “choosing the right web marketing channels for your book”. Agents who might previously have pushed for an ad in New York Times Book Review or a 5-city author tour need to understand what is the most effective use of support dollars today. Fishkin’s talk is also expected to provoke a lot of questions so he, like Data Guy, will have a breakout session that will allow attendees to get him to address their personal cases.

There are two other whole categories of information agents need to know about that are big components of our DBW program.

The four additional sessions on marketing could also be considered “can’t miss” for the agent keeping up with the digitally-affected ecosystem: one on ebook pricing; one on tracking “the book buyer’s journey” from discovery to purchase; a third on inbound and content marketing; and a fourth on email marketing. Since authors are critical players on the content marketing front and many also possess substantial email lists , it’s obvious that any agent would benefit from these!

(And on the day before DBW officially opens, when we have a full slate of other programming including our Publishers Launch Kids conference, we have four “Mostly Marketing Masterclasses” — on SEO, audience research, managing paid digital media, and sales data analysis — which are a separate ticket but also worth considering for any agent that wants to do a deep dive into modern book marketing.)

The other big category is understanding the larger ecosystem in which publishing exists, mostly shaped by the biggest tech companies. For the past 20 years, publishing has been increasingly dependent on and has given up a great deal of control to the likes of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Those “Four Horsemen” are the ongoing focus of NYU Stern School of Business Professor Scott Galloway, who will describe them and their strategies in a Main Stage talk. Two speakers with a skeptical view of tech’s impact on publishing economics are Jon Taplin of USC’s Annenberg School and anti-trust attorney Jonathan Kanter. Taplin will lay out his theory about how Silicon Valley has steadily devalued content in favor of tech and what the content industry can do to fight back. And Kanter will explore the near-term possibilities for anti-trust activity that could loosen the grip those companies, each bigger than the whole book industry, have on our ecosystem. In the same vein, Jessica Saenger of Germany’s Boersenverein will update us about anti-monopoly activity taking place in Europe that could affect those companies and, since every US company and author gets real revenue from Europe, is important to all of us.

There’s tons more: the company transformation talks (eight of them); author Virginia Heffernan on how the Internet is changing culture as well as how we buy and consume content; a session on sales reporting and analytics chaired by Hachette’s former CMO, Evan Schnittman. And what is actually a core topic for them, every agent needs to hear the panel discussing potential changes to copyright law being chaired by Roy Kaufman of Copyright Clearance Center.

It seems pretty certain that the agent who attends Digital Book World will be better prepared to do the jobs of advising authors about marketing and business, as well as negotiating their deals, than the agent who doesn’t.

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The publishing world is changing, but there is one big dog that has not yet barked


Recent data seem to show that, for the publishers, the growth in the retail ebook market has slowed down or stopped (at least for the moment), while Amazon’s ebook sales apparently continue to grow. The share of the market controlled by the publishing establishment — the Big Five publishers and others — is starting to be slowly eroded. This does not yet suggest that an author’s best bet is to go out on his/her own and we may be a very long way from that. But it does suggest that life may get increasingly difficult for publishers.

The headline data we saw last week is that Hachette’s ebook sales went down last year. All their sales declined, but ebooks fell faster and the percentage of their business in ebooks is diminishing. How much that has to do with their war last year with Amazon over terms is not clear.

What we’re also seeing and hearing is that publishers might have boxed themselves in with their return to agency pricing. When publishers first “raised prices” by instituting agency pricing for ebooks in 2010, they saw no reduction in ebook sales, which continued to grow. Michael Cader’s analysis (can’t find it in print, but he told it to me) was that publishers may have misread the real impact of price increases because they raised them in a growing market. The number of ebook readers was increasing every day, so those who were put off by the high prices were outnumbered by the new entrants who just wanted to read their books digitally on their shiny new devices.

Whatever is the reason, the anecdotal reports I’m getting suggest that the price increases aren’t being so easily swallowed in the current round of Agency pricing. Amazon may not care about ending discounting from those prices because they don’t need to or want to, but it would appear that the new deals won’t let them. They certainly don’t have the flexibility to do so that they did before Agency came to the marketplace. So the sometimes startlingly high publisher-set prices are prevailing. And, aside from the Hachette numbers that were reported, we’re hearing widespread but totally unofficial reports that big publisher ebook sales are dropping noticeably when their new higher agency prices are activated.

Hugh Howey told me this was happening in a private exchange three months ago. I didn’t believe him. I do now.

We continue to see a shift in market share. Amazon’s share continues to grow, as does Apple’s. Nook’s share continues to shrink. Google and Kobo are harder to read, but both are smaller than the others anyway.

But this is not a zero-sum game and it isn’t simple. It’s Rubik’s Cube complicated.

Some of the change in the market could be due to subscription services taking a chunk of ebook consumption out of the by-the-book retail market. Although Scribd and Oyster appear to have very small market shares, Scribd was so “successful” with some readers that they had to cut back their romance offering; it was apparently costing them too much to provide all the books their romance subscribers could read.

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited may be having a bigger impact on the overall market. In all these cases, it is the public understanding that the subscription services are “purchasing” the ebooks from the established publishers. (Kindle’s own authors are compensated with a “by the page read” division of a pot that Amazon arbitrarily decides.) But the Big Five aren’t participating in KU and they aren’t putting their new books — the biggest sellers with the highest prices — into the subscription services. So all the reader bandwidth and revenue going through those services might be coming out of the big players’ and big books’ share.

Our friends at Ingram told me another piece of anecdata which may also be at play. They keep track of the number of SKUs that sell 100 copies or fewer and those that sell 10,000 copies or more. The aggregate sales of the former group is growing; the aggregate sales of the latter group is not. What that suggests is that the sales of books that are not really commercial are taking share away from those that are, whether those that are come from publishers or indie authors like Hugh Howey. Whether that particular change is yet impactful, it is inexorable.

The reduction in ebook sales of hot new titles could be starting to affect future deals — one agent told me unambiguously that it is visible — which would be the next step in the indie vision of how publishers disappear. Publishers base their advances on revenue expectations, which, for ebooks, might now be diminishing. If authors can’t get the same big advance as they did before, might they prefer to go it alone and take the bigger share of ebook revenues they can (still) get with a do-it-yourself approach? Obviously, for some, as the equation shifts, that could happen.

But, at the same time, we’re seeing print book sales, and — at least for the moment — print book retail shelf space, holding their own. As long as that’s true, publishers still have a vital role to play. As long as the proposition “we put books on shelves” has value, so do publishers.

In fact, Ingram (not Amazon) offers the complete suite of services a publisher needs to provide, as does Perseus, whose distribution business Ingram tried to acquire in the 3-way deal with Hachette that went sour about a year ago. Both of them can get a book printed, offset in a print run or on-demand. They warehouse and bill and collect. They have a sales force. They do business with all the retail outlets that every publisher does. And they offer all those capabilities on a marginal cost basis. (The big publishers offer a similar suite of services, but generally are less interested in smaller players that Ingram and Perseus are happy to serve.) Whether you publish one book, 100 books, or have a long list, all you need is the rights to the book and the cash to pay your costs and you can buy the logistical capability to match any publisher.

But you won’t have two things that really matter:

the capability to coordinate the many marketing activities that go into maximizing a book’s success in the marketplace, and;

the “brand” that tells retailers they should believe your hype and stock your book before they know for sure it will sell.

For big author brands, the “sure to sell” component might well be in place, but the marketing complications, and the risk (because a lot of inventory could be involved) would not be trivial.

What this means for the future of publishers, or for what will constitute the best business decision for authors, is not obvious. Everybody trying to make money in the future from the books they write will suffer from the problem the data Ingram cites points to: the increasing share of the readers’ attention that will be taken by books not published with serious commercial intent. If publishers lower their prices to compete more effectively with indie-published books and the subscription offers, their revenue will go down but so will the indies’, who will lose some of the benefits they now gain from their pricing advantage.

It is sometimes suggested that publishers need to move out of Manhattan to be competitive, but, in fact, there are many ways to reconfigure aside from that. The service offerings from Ingram and Perseus (and others: one example is that Donnelley also offers publishers the ability to convert manufacturing management and warehousing overheads to variable costs) allow publishers to get leaner and more focused on their core missions of identifying, developing, and marketing content.

What is definitely true is that the share of the reading market held by commercially-minded publishers (not just commercial “for profits”, but also university presses) will diminish as both successful self-published authors and hundreds of thousands of others who don’t succeed (and maybe don’t even care) take their content to market on their own.

The university and academic presses, of course, have a defining characteristic that might well protect them. They require certified knowledge to underpin their books. (Whether you’re publishing about accounting or brain surgery, you need validated authority that will be an insuperable barrier for independent publishing.)

This is not a death-knell for anybody. This is a changing world for everybody. Of the current household names, only Amazon and Ingram are structurally positioned to grow quite naturally in a shrinking overall market. (The publishers can grow by acquiring each other, and PRH and HarperCollins would seem to be in the best position to take advantage of that.) Amazon will sell an increasing share of the books; Ingram will provide more and more services to more and more publishers while they remain the biggest supplier to everybody besides Amazon that sells books. (Perseus can also expand its distribution business.) The roster of publishers will continue to consolidate, as it has been doing pretty relentlessly (except for a recent decade of relative stability which seems to have now unleashed a more recent stage of more extreme consolidation) for at least 40 years. But as long as print is sold in stores and, after that, as long as half of the books are sold by somebody other than Amazon, there will be a need for publishers that most authors will be delighted to allow compensation for.

Let’s remember that there is a very big dog that has not barked. No major author of recurring bestsellers has stepped up to take charge of his or her own output. It is bound to happen someday, and if you’d asked me five years ago, I would have been sure it would have happened by now. Five years ago I would also have figured that one of the big publishers by 2025 would be a version of United Artists, several major authors organized to share an organization and create their own brand. There have been no signs of that yet either. Indie publishing is still growing and it seems that established publishing is at a standstill. But we’re still many years — most likely a decade or more — from any real changing of the guard.

I don’t see myself as a sophisticated reader or analyst of fiction. But I want to offer the opinion that “Go Set A Watchman”, the controversial new release from “To Kill A Mockingbird” author Harper Lee, is a very worthwhile book. And, by my reading, both the story and the Atticus Finch character fit perfectly well with what we read in “Mockingbird”. What changed most between the two books was the circumstances of the south. “Mockingbird” takes place in a time of unquestioned white dominance. “Watchman” takes place in a time when white dominance is under serious threat. It is a more complex time and deals with more complex issues. It is easy to see why a commercial editor in the late 1950s would find “Watchman” a very uncomfortable book to sell and “Mockingbird” much easier to place in the market.

There are dueling opinions on this. I agree with novelist Ursula Le Guin (you’ll have to click on “newest post” if you go there before she publishes her next one; not sure how you’ll navigate after that), not with the bookseller who thinks the book is so bad that the store is compelled to offer refunds to disappointed readers.

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Better book marketing in the future depends a bit on unlearning the best practices of the past


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A few years ago, publishers invented the position of Chief Digital Officer and many of the big houses hired one. The creation of a position with that title, reporting to the CEO, explicitly acknowledged the need to address digital change at the highest levels of the company.

Now we’re seeing new hires being put in charge of “audiences” or “audience development”. I don’t know exactly what that means (a good topic for Digital Book World 2016), but some conversations in the past couple of weeks are making clearer to me what marketing and content development in book publishing is going to have to look like. And audiences are, indeed, at the heart of it.

I’ve written before about Pete McCarthy’s conviction that unique research is needed into the audiences for every book and every author and that the flow of data about a book that’s in the marketplace provides continuing opportunities to sharpen the understandings of how to sell to those audiences. Applying this philosophy bumps up against two realities so long-standing in the trade book business that they’re very hard to change:

How the book descriptions which are the basis for all marketing copy get written
A generic lack of by-title attention to the backlist

The new skill set that is needed to address both of these is, indeed, the capability to do research, act on it, and, as Pete says, rinse and repeat. Research, analysis, action, observation. Rinse and repeat.

I had a conversation over lunch last week with an imprint-level executive at a Big House. S/he got my attention by expressing doubt about the value of “landing pages”, which are (I’ve learned through my work with Logical Marketing; I wouldn’t have known this a year ago) one of the most useful tools to improve discovery for books and authors. I have related one particularly persuasive anecdote about that here. This was a demonstration to me of how much basic knowledge about discovery and SEO is lacking in publishing. (The case for how widespread the ignorance of SEO in publishing has been made persuasively in an ebook by British marketer Chris McVeigh of Fourfiftyone, a marketing consultancy in the UK that seems to share a lot of the philosophy we employ at Logical Marketing.)

But then, my lunch companion made an important operational point. I was advocating research as a tool to decide what to acquire, or what projects might work. “But I could never get money to do research on a book we hadn’t signed,” s/he said, “except perhaps to use going after a big author who is with another house.” (Indeed, we’ve done extensive audits at Logical Marketing for big publishers who had exactly that purpose in mind.) “But, routinely? impossible!”

The team Pete leads can do what would constitute useful research which would really inform an acquisition decision, for $1000 a title. If the capability to do what we do — which probably requires the command of about two dozen analytical tools — were inhouse, it would cost much less than that.

Park that thought.

I also had an exchange last week with Hugh Howey, my friend the incredibly successful indie author with whom I generally agree on very little concerning big publishers and their value to authors. But Hugh made a point that is absolutely fundamental, one which I learned and absorbed so long ago that I haven’t dusted it off for the modern era. And it is profoundly important.

Hugh says there are new authors he’s encountering every day who are achieving success after publishers failed with them. It is when he described the sales curve of the successful indie — “steadily growing sales” — that a penny dropped for me. An old penny.

We recognize in our business that “word of mouth” is the most effective means of growing the market for a book. If that were the way things really worked, books would tend to have a sales curve that was a relatively gentle upward slope to a peak and then a relatively gentle downward slope.

Of course, very few books have ever had that sales curve. Nothing about the way big publishers routinely market and sell would enable it to happen. Everything publishers do tries to impose a different sales curve on their books.

A gentle upward slope followed by a gentle downward slope would, in the physical world, require a broad and very shallow distribution with rapid replenishment where the first copy or two put at an outlet had sold. But widespread coordination of rapid replenishment of this kind for books selling at low volumes at any particular outlet (let alone most outlets) is, for the most part, a practical impossibility in the world of distributed retail.

In fact, distributed retail demands a completely out-of-synch sales curve. It wants a big sale the first week a book is out to give it the best chance of making the bestseller list and, even failing that, the best chance of being worthy of continuing attention by a publisher’s sales staff, and therefore, the marketing team. Books in retail distribution are seen as failures if they don’t catch on pretty quickly, if not in days or weeks, certainly within a couple of months. And if a store sells two copies, say, of a new book in the first three months, it probably doesn’t make the cut as a book to be retained. If they bought two, they’re glad they’re gone and not likely to re-order without some push by the publisher or attention-grabbing other circumstance. If they bought ten, they’ll want to get their dollars back by making returns so they can invest in the next potentially big thing.

But that’s not the case online, where there is no need for distributed inventory (especially of ebooks!) If the first copies sold lead to word of mouth recommendations, the book will still be available to the online shopper. And there will be nothing in the way it is presented — it won’t have a torn cover hidden and be hidden in the back of the store, say — to indicate it isn’t successful. People can buy it and the chain can continue, building over time. Three months later, six months later, it really doesn’t matter; the book can keep selling. And, by the way, this will be true at any online retailer with an open account at Ingram (including for print-on-demand books), not just at Amazon.

But, in the brick and mortar world, the book will effectively be dead if it doesn’t catch on in the first three months. And the reality of staffing, focus, and the sales philosophy of most publishers means it won’t be getting any attention from the house’s digital marketers either.

If you live in the world of indie success like Hugh Howey does, you are repeatedly seeing authors breaking through months after a book’s publication, at a time when an experienced author knows a house would have given up on them.

Now park that.

I also had a chat last week with a former colleague of mine now at a periodical. He was explaining that one major conceptual challenge for his publication in the digital age was to see their readership as many pretty small and discrete audiences, not one big one at the level of the “subscriber”. No story in his publication is intended for “everybody”; what is important is for a newspaper or magazine to know whether particular stories are satisfying the needs of the particular niche of their audience that wants that topic, that kind of story. Talking to this former colleague about digital marketing and publishing was a variation on the themes that are topics with Pete.

One thing I learned in this conversation made another penny drop. Let’s say you have a story on any particular topic, from theater to rugby, my friend posited. Your total “theoretical market” within the publication’s readership is every person who ever read a single story on that subject. But your “core market” is every person who has read two stories on it. If a high percentage of those read it, the story succeeded. If not, the story failed.

And a further implication of this analysis is that seeing your audiences that way, and growing them that way, will also ultimately allow monetizing them more effectively. This wouldn’t be advertising-led, so much as harvesting the benefits of audience-informed content creation, but it is totally outside the way editorial creation at newspapers and magazines has always occurred.

And now park that.

We had a meeting two weeks ago with a fledgling publisher whose owner has a great deal of direct marketing expertise. As he heard Pete explaining what he did, looking for search terms that suggested opportunity (lots of use of the term and relatively few particularly good answers), he wondered if we could tell him through research what book to write. We’ve gotten some publishers in some circumstances to do marketing research early enough to influence titling and sub-titling. McVeigh in his ebook makes the same point under the rubric that SEO should be employed before titling any book.

Of course, we don’t sell that kind of help very often or we haven’t so far. It would require getting marketing money invoked early to pay for research like that. But we know it is useful.

And all of this together brings into sharper focus for me where trade publishing has to go, and how the marketing function, indeed, the whole publishing enterprise, needs to be about a constant process of audience segmentation, research, tweaks, analysis, and repeat. A persistently enhanced understanding of multiple audiences can productively inform title selection and creation. And systems and workflows need to be built to systematically apply what is being learned every day to every title which might benefit. Audience segmentation and constant research are really at the heart of the successful trade publishing enterprise of the future, even if we are only lurching toward them now with a primitive understanding of SEO, the occasional A-B test for a Facebook ad, and the gathering of some odd web traffic and email lists that don’t relate to any overall plan.

A publisher operating at scale ought to have the ability to provide those authors that want to build their audiences one reader at a time better analysis and tools than they would have to do it on their own.  Publishers have always depended on the energy of authors to sell their books; the techniques just have to change. Instead of footing the bill for expensive and wasteful author tours, publishers should be providing tools, data, and helpful coaching to be force multipliers for the efforts authors are happy to extend on their own behalf. The publisher’s goal should be have their authors saying “I don’t know how I could possibly be so effective without the help I get from my publisher.”

Publishers should also be doing the necessary research to examine the market for each book they might do before they bid on it. They should have audience groups with whom they’re in constant contact, and they also need the ability to quickly segment and analyze audiences “in the wild”. The dedicated research capabilities need to be applied to the opportunities surfaced by constant monitoring of both the sales of and the chatter about the backlist.

Size, scale, and a large number of titles about which a lot is known should give any publisher advantages over both indie authors and dominant retailers in building the biggest possible audience for the books it publishes. But getting there will require both learning the techniques of the future and unlearning the concepts and freeing themselves of the discipline of “pub date” timing that have always driven effective trade publishing.

The publishers creating new management positions with the word “audience” in the title would seem to be very much on the right track. It is worth recalling that my father, Leonard Shatzkin, carried the title of Director of Research at Doubleday in the 1950s. Research would be another function to glorify with a title and a budget assigned and monitored from the top of each company. Note to the CEOs: a budget for “research” for marketing and to inform acquisition should be explicit and it should be the job of somebody extremely capable to make sure it is productively invested.

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Alternative paths to publishing proliferate but the path for authors most likely to be lucrative is still the oldest one


The Guardian reports that Big Five British publishers are aggressively courting authors to come directly to them rather than through agents. The specifics cited make this sound more like “toes in the water” than “a change in the value chain”. The Tinder Press division of Hachette is holding an “open submissions fortnight”. The editorial director of Random House imprint Jonathan Cape tweeted a request for submissions one time and got 5,000 of them. And HarperCollins’s new Borough Press imprint is holding its second annual “open submission”. They got a single publication out of 400 submissions last year.

The same story also acknowledges that agents are changing their processes too (and have been, as we’ve noted, back in 2011), specifically pointing to a creative writing program operated by the Curtis Brown agency which has “found 15 debut novelists” (presumably meaning they got them publishing deals) “in two and a half years”. It is also true that many self-publishing successes, including Hugh Howey, use literary agents to help them reach publishers outside their home market or language.

The writer featured in the story, Andrea Bennett, was picked up by HarperCollins after getting nowhere submitting to “a dozen” agents and getting nothing but rejection letters, some of which came so quickly after her submission that it felt to her like her material was not even read.

The publishers quoted in the story, not surprisingly, indicated that their interest was in getting to promising talent that the agents might be weeding out. But with one of the houses working its way through 5,000 submissions (“three have real promise”, the publisher says, and I have no idea if they see the irony in that statement that I do) and another repeating the exercise when last year they published one out of 400, the data suggests that the curation the agents are doing is a valuable service for the publishers.

Of course, there is a compensating financial element for publishers who do the work to find unagented books worth publishing. They can almost certainly make a more advantageous deal than they’d make with an agent. Not only can they almost certainly secure the book for a smaller advance (a point amply made in the piece), they are also more likely to get world rights. A picture caption suggests that the Bennett novel HarperCollins picked up has been sold to six markets. If they’re not all English, that’s an opportunity most agents would have denied the publisher.

An unagented author is not without cost and complication to a publisher, who would have to take on the agent’s function of explaining the lengthy and sometimes complex process of publishing to the author every step of the way. This posting from HarperCollins, saying that only their new digital-first imprint accepts “unsolicited manuscripts” is typical. It contains language protecting themselves by explicitly rejecting any responsibility to read, comment on, or even return the unsolicited manuscripts sent to them. (This is almost certainly less of a problem than it was in the past when all submissions were paper, not files. One friend recalled an author who wanted to sue a major house 15 years ago because the author foolishly submitted his only copy of his manuscript and it was “lost” by the publisher.) The exception HarperCollins cites for its digital first imprint is mirrored in an apparently much older posting on the Penguin site which excepts DAW, their science-fiction imprint.

But even if a house would process its “slush pile” (the long-standing term for the unagented and unsolicited submissions) efficiently, and few, if any, do, it couldn’t be a big winner for the publisher to spend much time with it.

Nothing in the Guardian piece suggests to me that my advice to aspiring authors should change. I always tell them to get an agent if they possibly can. (And I also tell them to use the deal database in Publishers Marketplace to find the right agent.) No agent works with odds as long as 1 in 400 or 3 in 5000 with their submissions. Some of the submissions that got lost in those numbers might have been looked at differently if they’d come from an established agent. It is also extremely likely that those submissions that were agented would have been improved somewhat by the agent before submission. Agents don’t just curate. They also edit.

Even the lead author in the Guardian story doesn’t prove the case. Yes, she got a deal with HarperCollins after having had a few agents reject her. But might another handful of agent submissions have gotten her representation that would have resulted in a better deal than the one she got? Or, put another way, what are the chances that a competent agent would have failed to submit to HarperCollins? And then, what are the chances that as an agented author she would have gotten a better offer than what she got?

Patience here might have been remunerative.

Because there are self-published books achieving commercial success, publishers are well aware that the funnel for projects managed by the agents is not delivering them every book that might sell. It almost certainly never did, but, without self-publishing, the books they missed never got the chance to prove themselves in the marketplace without them. Now they do.

This is a great thing for authors. Self-publishing can be a path to a publisher or an agent as well as a way to reach readers directly. For those authors comfortable taking on the tasks beyond authorship — editing, creating a cover, cleaning up the text file, setting up their metadata, and publishing through the various portals — the new paradigm can be a valid alternative to the time-honored, and laborious, process of finding an agent and then letting the agent get the publishing deal.

And it is clear that both publishers and agents recognize that there are alternatives to the historical standard and that they’ll miss good projects from extremely capable authors if they don’t make themselves more accessible to aspiring writers.

But even an exponential increase in the number of self-publishing successes or, now, in the number of authors going directly to publishers without an agent, doesn’t change the realities of book publishing. The big money almost always goes to the agented author whose work is sold to a big house. The rest of it is, from an overall industry perspective, still a sideshow.

Due to many inadequacies of Feedburner email distribution, including that it seems to be locking up Outlook for some of our subscribers, we’ll be switching to a new delivery mechanism shortly, perhaps with whatever (and whenever) will be the next post. So those of you who get these posts by email should be aware that the format and look of what we put in your inbox might change next time or the time after. Presumably all changes will be improvements.

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No, the Big Five are not a cartel and it really ignores reality to label them as one


One of the best-attended breakout sessions of Digital Book World 2015 was the discussion called “Should Amazon Be Constrained, and Can they Be?” which shared the very last slot on the two day program. That conversation was moderated by veteran New Yorker journalist Ken Auletta, and included Annie Lowrey of New York Magazine, thriller author Barry Eisler, and Barry Lynn of the New America Foundation.

It turns out that the two Barrys, who have pretty much diametrically opposed positions on Amazon (Lynn wants them investigated by the DoJ as a competition-stifling monopoly; Eisler casts them, for the most part, as the heroes of the book business’s digital transition) have a common position on the Big Five publishers. They refer to them as a “cartel”. Eisler is sneeringly dismissive of “New York”, which he refers to the way Republicans of the 1980s referred to “Moscow”, as an obvious pejorative. He appears befuddled by how anybody interested in the well-being of authors and the reading public could take the side of these publishers who maintain high prices for books, contract with authors to pay them smaller percentages of sales than Amazon does (either through Amazon’s own publishing operations or through their self-publishing options), and notoriously reject a very high percentage of the authors who come to them for deals.

Perhaps because the focus was Amazon, perhaps because Eisler was both emphatic and entertaining in his roasting of the publishing establishment, and perhaps because the facts to defend them are not well known, neither moderator Auletta nor panelist Lowrey challenged the big publisher baiting from Eisler with which Lynn mostly agreed.

It was just as well that I wasn’t on the panel. I am not certain that Amazon can or should be constrained, but I am damn sure that the Big Five publishers are not villains, and they are certainly not a cartel. They do seem to be extremely poor defenders of their own virtue but they are doing yeoman work maintaining the value in the old publishing model — for themselves and for authors — while adjusting to changes in their ecosystem that require that they develop strong B2C capabilities while maintaining their traditional B2B model, the death of which has been greatly exaggerated. If I’d been on that stage, the discussion of Amazon would have been diverted when the trashing of the big publishers began.

I took the step of confirming in an email exchange my recollection of the counts in Eisler’s very entertaining, persuasive, and unchallenged indictment of the big publishers.

1. Their basic contract terms are all the same, which it felt at the time he was suggesting demonstrated collusion, but which in our subsequent exchange he clarified he interprets as evidence of “asymmetrical market power and a lack of meaningful competition”;

2. They pay too low royalties on ebooks, which he also attributes to their “asymmetrical power” and “an implicit recognition that publishers come out ahead if they don’t compete on digital royalties”;

3. They only pay royalties twice a year, rather than more frequently or more promptly, which Eisler also attributes to a lack of competition;

4. The term of big publisher contracts is normally “life of copyright”, which Eisler calls “forever terms”, and;

5. They reject a lot of authors. Here Eisler clarifies that this is not an “indictment, just an axiom”. I agree when he applauds self-publishing for creating a better world where “readers have more to choose from”. But we quickly part company again because he characterizes self-publishing as freeing us from a world where “an incestuous cartel” makes “virtually all the decisions about what tiny fraction of books readers will every have a meaningful opportunity to learn of and read”.

In our exchange, Eisler expressed the belief that “the only reason people have been okay with this is that the Big Five are ‘my people'”. So they get a pass which he likens to what conservatives gave George Bush or liberals give Barack Obama. (In another point of disagreement between us, Eisler seems to find very little difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. I guess that is some people’s way of saying “nonpartisan”. What it says to me is “not discerning”.) And Eisler finds it “interesting” that the publishing revolution has “people decry” Amazon for “doing, or often only for potentially one day doing, the very things that are the definition of the Big Five.” (I have problems with this too, because none of the big publishers have a dominant market share selling books online and ebooks. In other words, Amazon and the publishers really aren’t comparable. Check back with me if any of the big publishers builds — or buys — a market-leading retailer.)

I’m going to plead “no contest” to the charge that the Big Five are “my people”, which I hope won’t discredit my arguments any more than the fact that Eisler is an Amazon-published author discredits his. But the cartoon picture of publishing in Eisler’s reviled “New York”, where some small group of extremely like-minded people apply their narrow views to effectively restrict what people read is a massive distortion of reality. Let me try to set the record straight about this world so many of my friends inhabit and with which I’ve been interacting for the better part of five decades.

First of all, the Big Five have plenty of competition: from each other, as well as from smaller niche publishers who may but be “big” but certainly aren’t “small”. (That is why the big ones so often buy the smaller ones — they add scale and simultaneously bring heterogeneous talent in-house). They are all quite aware of the authors housed elsewhere among them who might be wooable. In fact, since we have started doing our Logical Marketing work, we have done several jobs which were big author audits commissioned by publishers who wanted to steal the author, not by the one which presently has them signed. Eisler explicitly resisted accusing the publishers of “collusion”, but he does accuse them of “not competing” with each other. That is an accusation that is simply not supported by the facts. Nobody who has spent any time talking to people who work in big houses could possibly get the impression that they don’t compete.

(In fact, a friend of mine just moved from one big house to another. He is explicitly persona non grata at his prior employer. Now, in this case, I think the house that lost him is behaving childishly, but it certainly underscores the fact that they believe they are in intense competition and now this one-time colleague has gone over to “the other side”.)

But the big flaw in Eisler’s logic is the same one that dooms Hugh Howey’s “Author Earnings” project to irrelevance: the assumption that the per-copy royalty terms and rights splits are the most important element of publishing contracts. In fact, they’re not. Actually, those terms matter in 20 percent or fewer of the agented author contracts with the Big Five. Why? Because the agents get the publishers to pay advances that don’t earn out!

In fact, I have been told by three different big houses what they calculated the percentage of their revenues paid to authors amounted to. We could call that the true royalty rate. The three numbers were 36, 40, and 42 percent. That includes what they paid for sales of paperbacks, all of which carry “stipulated” royalties of well less than 10 percent of the cover price (and therefore below 20 percent of revenue).

Take that on board. Big publishers are paying 40 percent of their revenue to authors! That leaves them 60 percent to pay everything else: overheads, manufacturing, and profits! Compare that to the margin Amazon has even if they pay a 35 percent digital royalty, or compare it to what anybody else has in any other business after paying to acquire the raw material for what they sell. If there were really an “asymmetrical” power equation favoring publishers, you’d think they could acquire the author contracts for a bit less, wouldn’t you?

Not only were the authors’ collective royalty rates much higher than contracts stipulated, the authors got most of that money in advance, eliminating the authors’ risk. The only contracts on which the royalty terms matter are those that do earn out (and, arguably, those that are close). For all the others, most of Eisler’s list of complaints is irrelevant. And, for the record, I have never heard an author complain about that show of confidence, the work that follows in helping him or her reach an audience (which benefits all involved), nor the cash upfront.

More frequent accounting doesn’t matter if you aren’t owed any money. And if the solution to “forever” contracts were that you could buy your way out by paying back what you got in advances that your book didn’t “earn”, how many authors would do that?

But, in fact, agented authors don’t have forever contracts; agents have been negotiating performance clauses for publishers to keep rights for years. And, on top of that, no author in the US can possibly have a “forever” contract because the copyright law of 1978 requires the publisher to revert rights to the copyright holder after 35 years on request. Agents tell me this is has been resulting in additional “advances” for re-upped books for the past couple of years. Note: this is the law. No publisher disputes it. But the “forever contract” argument ignores it.

But, even beyond that, the negative characterization of Big Five New York publishing is terribly unfair.

First of all, the standard terms in big house contracts are almost always more generous than the terms in smaller publisher contracts. Few — if any — of the smaller ones pay a hardcover royalty as high as 15 percent of list. Although higher digital royalties can sometimes be found, usually those are from publishers who have little capacity to deliver print sales, so digital royalties is all you’re going to get. (That might be okay for a romance novel where a big majority of sales could be digital. It would be disaster for the author of just about anything except genre fiction.) And some smaller publishers actually pay less than 25 percent for digital royalties.

So the Big Five terms are generally better and they routinely pay agented authors advances that no other publisher would attempt to match.

But, beyond that, the idea that they are a “cartel” (a characterization enthusiastically seconded by Amazon critic Barry Lynn after it was introduced by Amazon supporter Eisler), is really preposterous. In fact, the Big Five are, to varying degrees, federations of imprints that even compete internally for books, sometimes to the extent that they will bid against each other when an agent conducts an auction. And it would appear from Eisler’s pre-Amazon publishing history that he himself has, in fact, been the beneficiary of bidding competition among major houses.

The internal-to-the-house competition occurs because of the way big publishers are organized. It has been understood for decades that some aspects of a publisher’s operation benefit from scale and size and other functions must remain small. In general, publishers deliver accounting, manufacturing, and sales as centralized functions and editorial acquisition and development, packaging and design, and marketing as localized capabilities housed within the imprints. The power of imprints, which are individual editorial units, varies, but it is generally the case that they have autonomy over their acquisitions and must “compete” internally for the centralized services.

The digital transition is definitely straining that organizational structure. Having the by-title P&L responsibilities distributed makes it more difficult for houses to organize cross-imprint initiatives for everything from direct sales to audience-centric (vertical- or subject-oriented) marketing. Having multiple imprints that all contain “general” lists is probably an anachronism in an age when we want brands (which imprints are) to make sense to consumers. Publishing imprint brands were always B2B, meant more to inform such trading partners as libraries and bookstores and reviewers, not the general public.

But the big houses reap large benefits from the power of their central services. They get rock-bottom prices for printing and lightning-fast service for reprints. They have daily contact with the biggest accounts, which matters for getting reorders onto suddenly-empty shelves or to execute a short-lived price promotion for an ebook. They have teams of people staying abreast of every promotional opportunity at every account or service like BookBub. They are increasingly developing teams and tools to keep their marketing metadata fresh and relevant, to monitor the online world for marketing opportunities, or to build or advise authors on creating effective web presences.

Although authors can certainly be found who felt they were signed and then ignored, most houses sweat all the details: editing the book, packaging it for sale, and following rigorous pre-publication routines to get endorsements. They all have special sales departments that are regularly working catalogs and specialty retailers for the books appropriate to their audiences. Smaller houses don’t have all these capabilities. To suggest to an author with no publishing background that s/he can do all this themselves, even with an unlimited budget to buy outside services, is really setting a novice up for frustration and failure, or at the very least near-certain dissatisfaction.

I asked Eisler about the competition among the big houses that doesn’t seem to enter his calculus. Here’s what he told me:

As for competition among the Big Five, I call it kabuki competition. Competition that results in decades of zero innovation and the same antediluvian lockstep contractual terms is by definition meaningless. It’s managed competition, agreed-upon competition. A lack of industry innovation is like the dog that didn’t bark: the absence is itself evidence, because in the presence of meaningful competitive pressure, industry players innovate. To argue otherwise, you’d have to argue there has never been room for real innovation in publishing practices. I think that would be a hard argument to make.

To put it another way, what the Big Five cooperate on is far more significant than what they compete on. By it’s [sic] nature, competition is more noticeable than cooperation, so a little bit of competition obscures a lot of cooperation.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t tell me much. I don’t know what the Big Five “cooperate” on. And though the argument that there “has never been room for real innovation in publishing practices” would, indeed, be nonsense, so is the claim that there has been no innovation. A “failure to innovate” doesn’t describe the last five years that I’ve been living through. All the Big Five houses have continuously reorganized, brought in outside-of-publishing digital talent at a high level to up their game, and introduced digital-first operations and contracts, all at the same time that they have had to manage down fixed investments in plant (warehouses) and change manufacturing-and-inventory processes to take advantage of improved digital printing capabilities.

It is now often forgotten that, while it is true that Amazon “made” the ebook market really happen, publishers had for a very long time before Kindle been creating editorially magnificent products and were far ahead of Amazon in seeking to publish in ebook formats, only partly because of better economics. (At the time all costs were additive and the market was tiny.) They published them because readers seemed to want them and big publishers, whatever their bashers might think, feel a responsibility to assure maximum distribution of a writer’s work.

In fact, the big houses all are comprised of competing imprints. Among them they employ hundreds of acquiring editors who are each trying to build their own successful lists (competing with each other). They are shamelessly commercial: a book with the potential to sell only a few thousand copies won’t get their attention. But, beyond that and those things that are far outside prevailing public morals and sensibilities, I can’t see any restrictions on what they’ll publish.

The Big Five houses have negotiated the digital transition that has occurred so far with startling success. The self-publishing business has grown, fueled by investment from Amazon and other big players, but big houses have hardly lost any authors. They are facing down dominant retailers in their two biggest channels — brick bookstores and online — and managing to maintain their margins and profitability. They are all moving on a variety of initiatives to build vertical (audience-centric) capabilities and extend their global marketing and sales reach.

But even if one assumes the “worst” of the big publishers, it is a total canard to say, as Eisler did to me, that “in the absence of meaningful competition, the Big Five has exercised incredible power over what books are published and what people are functionally permitted to read.” In fact, the argument that authors can reach their audiences successfully through self-publishing (which on other days, Eisler and his fellow musketeers Hugh Howey and Joe Konrath make with gusto) explicitly contradicts that contention. But so do Harry Potter, published by Scholastic, and “Fifty Shades of Gray”, picked up by Knopf after a self-published start, to name two sales phenomena of relatively recent times. There are a number of very capable publishers just a bit smaller than the Big Five (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has the Lord of the Rings books, for example) and there are legions of specialty publishers who do books the Big Five would generally not even consider.

Sometimes the Big Five acquire those publishers to add diverse author and publishing talent to their rosters to compete in niche markets. Harpercollins’s acquisitions of Thomas Nelson and Harlequin fit that description. How much a big house can publish is one thing; what they can publish is also a function of the talent onboard and the audience development that has already taken place.

The Big Five are actually specialists of a different sort: they do the books with the biggest commercial potential. I’d argue that having five very large companies all capable of making a book a mammoth commercial success is a pretty big number, not a small one. If those companies were broken into more of their component parts and we had 15 or 25 large-ish publishers rather than five giant ones, it is not at all obvious that author advances or sales would be higher. There would probably be more manufacturing and sales staff per title (and less investment in tech to support either) than there is now, but those salaries would be subtractions from the company’s margins, and would therefore likely increase book prices. That’s not going to produce more value for either authors or readers. So I actually think author advances — which one must always remember is the metric that matters most in determining how well authors are getting paid — would be lower.

During our on-stage conversation at Digital Book World 2015, Brian Murray, the CEO of HarperCollins, took great pains to express his view that self-publishing capabilities are good for authors and for readers. On the same morning, Judith Curr, who is the President of S&S’s Atria imprint, explained how her house specifically targets successful indie authors to bring them in. Every big house has some respectful variation on those themes. The animus between big publishers and some components of the self-publishing community is really a one-way street. In a prior post of mine about the illogical publisher-bashing, the comment string taught me that the mostly rhetorical and histrionic arguments from the self-publishing side against the big houses constituted an emotional, not a rational, reaction.

A dispassionate examination of the facts and an understanding of how things really work make it clear that big publishers — both goaded and constrained by powerful agents — are very good for authors. That doesn’t mean self-publishing isn’t good for them too but, then, no big publisher I know is saying that it isn’t!

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The motivation of the publisher-bashing commentariat is what I cannot figure out


Once again this morning we wake up to a piece by David Streitfeld in The New York Times about Authors United and their ongoing effort to discredit Amazon. The message coming loud and clear from the legacy publishing establishment is that Amazon doesn’t appreciate, and perhaps doesn’t understand, the value that agents, publishers, and chain and independent bookstores bring to authors and readers and, by extension, to society as a whole. The challenge they face in this ongoing discussion is that many of those values — multiple (agent, publisher, bookseller) levels of curation, investments in quality editing, giving worthy authors the financing to do the creative work that must take place well before the IP will generate any revenue — are pretty esoteric and hard for most people to relate to. And they apply to a small and possibly diminishing number of writers.

The critical services publishers provide are marketing and distribution and those functions, as we all know, are undergoing change and revision as part of the digital disruption. And because they are rapidly changing, there is even greater-than-usual variability to how well these things are done across publishers and, within publishers, across their imprints and lists. Indeed, many authors at legacy houses are not enamored of their publishing experience, but the ones who are defending the publishers are also defending something of their own.

What is equally loud and clear from Amazon’s own statements and those of their supporters (including many authors who would be less well known and less well off today if Amazon hadn’t built the tools and market share they have over the past several years), is that the legacy industry doesn’t appreciate, and perhaps doesn’t understand, that commercial publishing was built on an ecosystem which is rapidly being dismantled and will ultimately be irrelevant. And they point out that what is replacing what came before delivers much lower-priced ebooks (print is another matter) to consumers and a substantially larger portion of the revenue to the authors than published contract splits would give them. (The fact is that those splits are irrelevant more than 80 percent of the time for the most commercial books because big agents get big authors advances larger than what they “earn”, but that’s another story.) The authors that work in the new paradigm also gain unprecedented control of their professional lives: publishing when they want to, pricing and changing prices as they want to, and playing with marketing opportunities (bundling print-and-digital, entering subscription services) or not, as they and they alone decide.

The fact that both options are commercially viable today means we might actually now be living in a golden moment for authors. Publishers are certainly aware that a brand-name author has a truly workable self-publishing option (although, frankly, the biggest surprise to me so far is that basically no major author has taken it, which is objective evidence that the execs running the big houses are navigating at least some aspects of the digital transition very well). And Amazon started paying authors 70% when publishers switched to agency and extracted 70% for themselves, a connection that seems not to have been made by much of the publisher-bashing commentariat.

While there is a symmetry to the two sides’ dismay about what is appreciated or understood, there is a massive asymmetry here that is hardly, if ever, mentioned. And that asymmetry makes the motivation of the legacy defenders very clear — they’re fighting for their lives — but actually suggests that the “side” fighting them (to the extent that it consists of indie authors) is at least sometimes simultaneously fighting against their own interests.

Those who feel well served on the legacy establishment side have much to fear from Amazon’s continued growth and success. The clear self-interest of all the publishers, agents, and those authors fortunate enough to be continuously “employed” through book contracts — which includes many, and certainly the most recognizable, of the authors in the Authors United effort — who are fighting for Hachette to “win” (which means maintaining the publisher’s share of the sales that flow through Amazon) in the current dispute is obvious, if perhaps insufficiently emphasized or acknowledged.

Cynicism about whether it is really the greater societal “goods” that get so much emphasis in their appeals that are really motivating these authors or whether they’re just protecting their own gravy train is not unreasonable.

Assuming that the publisher-bashing commentariat, who could also be characterized as the “pro-Amazon” advocates, has a healthy number of authors whose revenue is as largely dependent on Amazon as James Patterson’s is on Hachette, one can see the emotional motivations to fight for the home team could be similar. But the practical side of it is precisely opposite. It is obvious that Amazon getting stronger weakens Hachette’s (or HarperCollins’s or Bloomsbury’s or Cambridge University Press’s) ability to pay advances and publish more books, which directly affects various stakeholders and particularly steadily-working authors. But if Hachette “wins” — or if Amazon’s margins on transactions with publishers are not improved — how does this injure the self-publishing authors who are working successfully that way now? Simple logic says that Amazon will treat them best when the possibilities offered by publishers are the best.

Do they really think that Amazon will offer them more if Hachette is weaker? History and logic would suggest the opposite.

In other words, publisher-published authors definitely lose if Amazon gains strength in relation to them. But Amazon-published or KDP authors (and the publisher-bashing seems to come from both flavors) lose nothing if legacy publishing remains strong. They are, allegedly, fighting for the “good” of those authors who are signing “exploitive” publishing contracts, but their own interests are not served.

This asymmetry plays out in another way in the Lee Child exchange on the Konrath blog. Child says, again and again, that he thinks it makes complete sense for authors to exploit the opportunities in KDP if it looks like the best commercial choice for them. Maybe I’ve missed it (and I admit that I am disinclined to read most of the publisher-bashing posts and I certainly don’t make a habit of reading the bloggers who specialize in them), but the message I keep getting from Konrath, Eisler, and Howey is not “choose the course that is best for you based on the choices you have in front of you” but is more like “never sign one of those exploitive publishing contracts!” (Howey tells me he blogs about that “all the time” and cites this post of his. You can decide for yourself what you think, but it seems to me that he is saying “only sign with a publisher after you’ve built yourself up by self-publishing first”.)

The motivation of the authors who spend a great deal of time and energy bashing big publishers has puzzled me before. Because “price-shoppers” are a core audience for indie ebooks, indies actually got a shot in the arm when the publishers and Apple put in agency pricing, which in its original form prohibited even the retailer from taking a loss to bring branded ebook prices down.

There’s no way for an outsider to compile the data to prove this, but the chances are very good that indie author breakthroughs were easier to achieve during the years when the price gap between the majors and the indies was greatest. But most of the voices now demonizing Hachette (and the rest of what is being called the Big Five “cartel”) also bashed agency pricing. I see the benefit to Amazon in that position, but I don’t see how crippling agency pricing helped indie authors.

It is not only Judge Cote’s decision which has changed things since, but also the growing awareness of publishers about the value of temporary price drops, or “daily deals” and services — most prominently BookBub — to amplify the effect of promotional pricing in the marketplace. But how did ending agency pricing benefit independent authors?

Hugh Howey maintains that he is better off if his books and those from the big branded authors are priced the same. Hugh’s a smart guy so maybe I’m just not bright enough to get it, but that makes no sense to me. Except in the luxury goods market, there is virtually no situation where you gain advantage with a higher price than the alternative pitted against you. The bigger the saving you can offer, the more you’ll sell. In fact, Hugh makes that argument himself when he claims that lower ebook prices will raise industry revenue because it makes the ebooks more affordable. It’s fine to argue that the big publishers are dumb not to lower prices and sell more, but, even if it is true and especially if it is true and they pay attention and obey, how does that do him any good? (The answer from Hugh, by the way, is that we’re all better off if all prices are lower.)

I have been persuaded in Howey’s case that he personally rises above self-interest in his industry commentary. Hugh’s a nice guy, a smart guy, and a socially-conscious guy. He and I have had many candid and mutually respectful exchanges. And I read “Wool” and recruited him to speak at Digital Book World long before he was such a celebrity on the anti-publisher side. I believe him when he says “I’ve made more money than I ever imagined I would; I’m grateful; and one benefit of that is I don’t need to be motivated by money in my decisions.”

Howey is a true believer and a crusader who is sincerely convinced that the standard publisher terms for authors are unfair and need to change. He has occasionally expressed skepticism and concern about some of Amazon’s decisions and behavior, particularly around the complex compensation schemes for Kindle authors with their KOLL (lending library) and Kindle Unlimited (subscription) initiatives which buys him a certain amount of credibility. But I still can’t understand why he’s in KU but not Oyster and Scribd and 24Symbols, a set of decisions that strike me as being in Amazon’s commercial interest but not his own. (One possible explanation is that going into additional distributions creates more “work”, but I don’t take that too seriously. Hugh can afford to hire people to do the work, and he does all kinds of other things, like his AuthorEarnings blog, purely to add to industry knowledge. It would add a lot of useful insight if he were in the subscription services and reported on it.)

Perhaps the problem has to do with Amazon’s KDP rules, which apparently require “exclusivity” to be in KU. That is almost certainly not a requirement visited on publishers. If that’s what is stopping Howey, it would be nice if he would say so. Could Amazon be preventing its authors from pursuing revenue opportunities? If that’s true, wouldn’t that belong in any discussion of an author’s choices?

Another persistent Amazon advocate is author Barry Eisler, whom I first encountered during a brief moment when he was going to eschew taking advances and being published by somebody in favor of doing it on his own. (In the end, he became an Amazon-signed author.) When I posed the quandary that is the subject of this piece to Eisler, he referred me to this post of his which I don’t believe addresses the question. You can check out the link and decide for yourself.

Trying really hard to understand this and think imaginatively about it, I can only really come up with two “selfish motivations” that make sense. One — and I think this is the one that is claimed — is that the publisher-bashing is designed to improve life for the victimized authors who choose those deals. Indeed, the content of the anti-publisher rants often includes specific suggestions, or demands: raise the digital royalty, make shorter contracts, pay royalties more often, etc. that are, no doubt, author-friendly. But it does seem a bit weird for people committed to demonizing, weakening, and ridiculing the big publishers to be the ones to tell them what they could do to stay competitive. If publishers accepted the suggestions, of course, perhaps Amazon would be pushed to improve author terms too, but that seems a pretty indirect and distant reward to explain all the time and energy some people expend on this. (Or are they promising to sign with the big publishers if they follow these suggestions? I don’t think so!)

Another conceivable legitimate motivation, of course, is ego. These publisher-bashers have managed to “do it” without them, and continuing a high-profile running criticism of the establishment they outdid and outmaneuvered, particularly when you can get a lot of applause, might be alluring. But even that feels weak to me. If self-aggrandizement were what motivated these people, it would be even more impressive if their frame were “this is hard, but I managed to do it” whereas the message feels much more like “anybody can do this and you’re a bit of a dolt if you don’t.”

None of this constitutes enough of an explanation to satisfy me. I am either missing something in plain sight or I’m not in possession of all the facts. Perhaps the “explanation” that the published authors defending Hachette pursue their selfish interests but that the indie authors who bash Hachette and the others do it out of public-spiritedness, even if their own revenue suffers, does it for you even though it doesn’t for me.

Amazon has a strong case to make for itself. They really made online book retailing work through strategic brilliance and excellence of execution, without being first and against industry entities that should have had competitive advantage. They made ebooks into a thriving business for everybody pretty much singlehandedly, also without being first. They’re entitled to feel that the powerful position they’re in is because of the virtue of their model and execution, and they’re entitled to feel that a different publishing industry than the one they came into is the future they have to work towards, whether or not they want to spell out that vision in full and whether or not the incumbents “get it”.

If every argument being made by the publisher bashing commentariat were coming from Amazon, I’d understand the motivation and factor it in, as I do with Authors United or Hachette when they speak.

But I need to understand a rational motivation to put anybody’s advocacy in context. And it seems to me the very best thing for indie authors is for all the existing publishers to retain their capability to hire authors on that model as much as they can for as long as they can. That’s not the best thing for Amazon, but I really think it is the best thing for authors, and as true for those who do-it-themselves as for those who are published.

A senior Amazon executive, in a meeting we had two or three years ago, complimented me on the fact that I “understand entities acting in their own self-interest.” My response then was, and my feeling now is, “I’m mistrustful when they don’t.”

After I wrote this, I found that blogger Chuck Wendig had asked a similar question, with far less editorial speculation than appears here, in what appears to be an undated, but recent, post. He framed it differently than I do and I’m not sure what I read at his attempt at irony (“why are self-publishers trying to save the Big Five?”) was seen that way by his many respondents. My focus is narrower: this fight is being carried by a handful of very persistent and energetic critics, spending time and energy that one would think takes more motivation than is required simply to  “have an opinion” on this subject one way or the other. “What fuels all this energy and vitriol?” is a different question than “which side are you on in the dispute?” 

Early Bird pricing for Digital Book World 2015 is only open until next Monday. There will be lots of programming that will provide context and insight around all things Amazon. Michael Cader and I will have a half-hour wide-ranging discussion with Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti. Judith Curr, the CEO of Simon & Schuster’s Atria imprint, will present her view of  the “publisher-or-self-publishing” choice authors face. An expert on the school and college market, Matthew Greenfield of Rethink Education, will include an assessment of Amazon’s role in his review of what publishers need to know to compete for those sales as things change. Jonathan Nowell, the CEO of Nielsen Book, will use his company’s historical data to look at how the mix of what sells in print has changed since ebooks took off. Media veterans and authors Walter Isaacson and Ken Auletta will let us see the book business alongside other media undergoing technological change, which is necessary for any valid understanding of Amazon. We have a panel of publishers talking about selling direct. Oh, and of course, Founder/President Josh Schanker of BookBub will be on a panel on price promotion! There’s a lot more that is relevant, which you’ll find if you scan the entire program.

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Are Amazon exclusives the next big challenge for everybody else in publishing?


Somebody smarter (or more patient about wading through data) than I am could probably figure out how far along this bifurcation is already, but Amazon is doing its very best to build a body of content that is desirable and available from nobody else but them.

This is something you can do when you’re in the neighborhood of 70 percent of ebook sales and already more than half the total sales for many works of fiction, which is where the self-publishing world is strongest. It is not an opportunity that is really available to any other retailer. Apple has given it a try for more complex ebooks for which they provide ebook-building tools and, presumably, offer the most productive distribution environment for complex content. But they’re playing on much less fertile ground and they don’t have anything like the audience share necessary to drive this strategy very far.

It is hard, if not impossible, to imagine that any other ebook ecosystem could offer benefits that would make it worth skipping Amazon.

Two recent developments call attention to this situation.

David Streitfeld in the New York Times reports that Amazon has held a private by-invitation-only conclave for writers the past four years. I knew about this before because I’m a subscriber to Publishers Lunch and they reported on it about three years ago. (I like to say about my conference business partner Michael Cader, proprietor of Publishers Lunch, that you go to him for the facts and you can come to me for opinions.)

It is a smart and sensible thing for Amazon to do. Amazon has been demonstratively aware of the ability of writers to promote their own books to their audiences but also to promote Kindle Direct Publishing among their peers. Bringing authors in for a private chat to exchange ideas is not only flattering to those invited (a benefit to Amazon in and of itself), it almost certainly also informs them about how to be more successful courting authors in the future. This shouldn’t be viewed pejoratively, although Streitfeld’s piece and a companion blog post seem to position it that way.

The other is Hugh Howey’s very public rumination about whether to go exclusive with Amazon or not, in which Howey wonders out loud whether he should stay exclusive with Amazon beyond a 90-day trial period based on his calculation that his audience (perhaps counterintuitively) goes up while his revenue takes a small hit. I’ve had an off-line exchange with Hugh in which he emphasizes what his post says: he really can’t decide which way to go on this.

(It is worth noting, as Hugh does, that when he makes these decisions, they are only commitments for 90 days at a time. Of course, each time he switches he creates work for himself, either putting up the titles in other venues or taking them down. But he can get the benefits of Amazon exclusivity in 90-day chunks with no commitments beyond the 90 days and go in and out as many times as he likes. Hugh makes what I think is an unhelpful and invalid comparison to the life-of-copyright deals publishers ask for in return for advances against royalties and inventory investments that Amazon and other retailers do not make for self-published authors, but he’s right that it is much easier to make a decision when you only have to live with it for three months.)

His open thought process became the subject of a post by Chris Meadows on Teleread. One thing on Hugh’s mind was whether he needed to help keep alternatives to Amazon viable by contributing his content to their mix. Meadows says “that’s not your problem” and I agree with that. Each writer should be making the publishing decisions that are best for their personal brand and career. The first decision — if a publisher offers them a choice — is whether to take an advance and a deal or whether to self-publish. If they self-publish, they have to decide whether to be exclusively Amazon or go for the widest possible distribution.

The reflexive, intuitive choice is to get the most distribution possible. There are certainly readers who shop exclusively in non-Amazon retail environments. There could even be a growing number of those in light of the recent publicity around the Hachette dispute and the negativity directed at Amazon by Authors United. There are certainly people who make a point to avoid shopping at Amazon or buy from them as little as possible. (I’m even related to some of those people.)

But with Amazon’s enormous market share, their ability to promote both through normal commerce and special exposure like their subscription service Kindle Unlimited, and their willingness to put a thumb on the financial scales (KDP Select authors get higher royalties; they pay bonuses to top sellers and top titles being seen in KU), they can make up for whatever might be lost by eschewing other channels of distribution.

The idea that having content that is not available elsewhere can strengthen a retail offering is not the exclusive province of Amazon. It was a core component of the strategy originally announced by upstart retailer Zola Books.

Amazon has not yet ever suggested that “content only available here” was any important part of their customer-marketing strategy. (Update: I’ve been corrected on this. In fact, they do promote the exclusive content, both in press releases and in their Kindle Unlimited promotion online. They tout “over 500,000 digital titles you won’t find anywhere else”.) The exclusive-or-not conversation has been mostly (should be: largely) confined to their dialogue with authors. In fact, the rest of the publishing world has nudged them in that direction by being resistant to stocking books from Amazon Publishing. If at one time the author recruitment team at Amazon might have hoped to deliver ubiquitous distribution for their books, the path to bookstores was effectively blocked by their brick-and-mortar competitors’ lack of willingness to support their program.

The self-publishing revolution, despite the enthusiasm of its strongest advocates (which definitely include Hugh Howey), has only made small inroads among authors who have the option of a substantial advance from a traditional publisher. For that reason, the pool of authors exclusive to Amazon contains very few that could change a book consumer’s shop-of-choice (except perhaps one time for a particular book they wanted to get).

But if a big earner like Hugh Howey thinks he might be better off accepting Amazon’s standard terms for exclusivity, that’s a dangerous sign for everybody else in the book ecosystem. A traditional publisher still offers brick-and-mortar visibility and revenue that Amazon and any self-publishing effort will not. The transfer of market share from stores to online and from print to digital hasn’t ended. Every point of market share that shifts strengthens Amazon’s proposition for exclusivity and increases the likelihood that a high-visibility author will make the self-publishing leap. The combination of the two — highly branded authors and Amazon exclusivity — is among the most unwelcome inevitabilities the rest of the industry will probably face in the years, if not months, to come.

What is already the case is that Amazon is piling up a repository of content that nobody else has. When that hits a tipping point that starts influencing substantial numbers of consumers is another shoe waiting to drop.

Programming at Digital Book World that is highly relevant to this post will be a presentation by Judith Curr, president of the Atria division of S&S, on the math of the author’s decision whether to go with a publisher or publish on their own. Curr’s division works hard to recruit new authors and, in fact, Peter K. Borland, who heads up Atria’s Keywords Press partnership with UTA to publish books from highly successful “digital influencers” (people with big YouTube audiences, for example), is a participant on a panel of “new publishers” who are making their mark. The other participants on that panel — Entangled and Georgia McBride Media — don’t have Big Five roots.

As we were about to post, a rumor hit the Net of a new Amazon program to recruit more self-published authors. The idea is that submissions of manuscript and cover are given a crowd-sourced review; then the highest-ranked are “considered” for a new kind of Amazon publishing contract. This doesn’t seem to have been “officially” announced, but a conversation with an Amazon person is reported and the source, The Digital Reader, is normally reliable. This initiative would be further evidence that Amazon is using its platform to control the distribution of more and more of what authors generate.

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What makes books different…


Before the digital age, retailers that tried to sell across media were pretty rare. Barnes & Noble added music CDs to their product mix when the era of records and cassettes had long passed. Record stores rarely sold books and, if they did, tended to sell books related to an interest in music. For those stores, it wasn’t so much about combining media as it was about offering a defined audience content related to their interest, like Home Depot selling home repair books. For the most part in pre-Internet times, books, music, and video each had its own retail network.

But when media became largely digital in the first decade of the 21st century, the digital companies that decided to establish consumer retail tried to erase the distinction that had grown up dividing reading (books) from listening (music) from watching (movies and TV). The three principal digital giants in the media retailing space — Amazon, Apple, and Google — all sell all these media in their “pure” form and maintain a separate market for “apps” as well that might contain any or all of the legacy media.

The retailing efforts for all of them are divided along legacy media lines, acknowledging the reality that people are usually shopping specifically for a book or music or a cinematic experience. Most are probably not, as some seem to imagine, choosing which they’ll do based on what’s available at what price across the media. (This is a popular meme at the moment: books “competing” with other media because they are consumed on the same devices. Of course, only a minority of books are consumed on devices, unlike the other media. Even though this cross-media competition might be intuitive logic to some people, it has scarcely been “proven” and, while it might be true to a limited extent, it doesn’t look like a big part of the marketing problem to me.)

It seems from here that Amazon and Barnes & Noble have a distinct advantage over all their other competitors in the ebook space because, with books — unlike movies and TV and music — the audience toggles between print and digital. And this might not change anytime soon. The stats are scattered and not definitive, but a recent survey in Australia found that ninety-five percent of Australians under 30 preferred paperbacks to ebooks! Other data seem to indicate that most ebook readers also read print. To the extent that is true, a book shopper — or searcher — would want to be searching the universe of book titles, print and digital, to make a selection.

It should be more widely understood that the physical book will not go the way of the Dodo nearly as fast as the shrink-wrapped version has for music or TV/film. It hasn’t and it won’t. There are very good, understandable, and really undeniable reasons for this, even though it seems like many smart people expect all the media to go all-digital in much the same way.

Making the case that “books are different” requires me to unlearn what I was brought up to believe. My father, Leonard Shatzkin, used to ridicule the idea that “books are different”, which was too often (he thought) invoked to explain why “modern” (in the 1950s and 1960s) business practices like planning and forecasting and measuring couldn’t be applied to books like they were to so many other businesses after World War II. In fact, Dad shied away from hiring people with book business experience, “because they would have learned the wrong things”.

But in the digital age, and as compared to other media, books are definitely different and success in books, whether print or digital, is dependent on understanding that.

First of all, the book — unlike its hard good counterparts the CD (or record or cassette) and DVD (or videotape) — has functionality that the ebook version does not. Quite aside from the fact that you don’t need a powered device (or an Internet connection) to get or consume it, the book allows you to flip through pages, write margin notes, dog-ear pages you want to get back to quickly, and easily navigate around back and forth through the text much more readily than with an ebook. There are no comparable capabilities that come with a CD or DVD.

Second, the book has — or can have — aesthetic qualities that the ebook will not. Some people flip for the feel of the paper or the smell of the ink, but you don’t have to be weirdly obsessed with the craft of bookmaking to appreciate a good print presentation.

But third, and most important, is the distinction about the content itself. When you are watching a movie or TV show or listening to music through any device, the originating source makes only the most nuanced difference to your consumption experience. Yes, there are audiophiles who really prefer vinyl records to CDs and there probably are also those who will insist that the iTunes-file-version is not as good as the CDs. And everybody who has watched a streamed video has experienced times when the transmission was not optimal. There are almost certainly music and movie afficionados who will insist on a hard goods version to avoid those inferiorities.

But the differences between printed books and digital books are much more profound and they are not nuanced. In fact, there are categories of books that satisfy audiences very well in digital form and there are whole other categories of books that don’t sell at all well in digital. That is because while the difference between classical music and rock or the difference between a comedy and a thriller isn’t reflected in any difference between a streamed or hard-goods version, the difference between a novel and a travel guide or a book of knitting instruction is enormous when moving from a physical to digital format.

For one thing, the book — static words or images on a flat surface, whether printed or on a screen — is often a presentation compromise based on the limitations of “static”. The producer of a record doesn’t think “how would I present this content differently if it is going to be distributed as a file rather than a CD?” But the knitting stitch that is shown in eight captioned still pictures in a printed book could just as well be a video in an ebook. And it probably should be.

In fact, this might be the use case for which a consumer would make a media-specific decision. If you know what knitting stitch you need to learn, searching YouTube for a video might make more sense than trying to find instructions in a book!

Losing the 1-to-1 relationship between the printed version and the digital version adds expense and a whole set of creative decisions that are not faced by the music and movie/TV equivalents. And they are also not a concern for the publisher of a novel or a biography. But these are big concerns for everybody in the book business who doesn’t sell straight-text immersive reading. The point is that screen size and quality are not — and never were — the only barriers in the way of other books making the digital leap.

So even though fiction reading has largely moved to digital (maybe even more than half), most of the consumer book business, by far, is still print. Even eye-catching headlines like the one from July when the web site AuthorEarnings (organized and run by indie author Hugh Howey, who is a man with a strong point of view about all this) said “one in three ebooks” sold by Amazon is self-published, might not be as powerful at a second glance.

Although Howey weeds out the ebooks that were given away free, the share of the consumer revenue earned by those indie ebooks would be a much smaller fraction than their unit sales. The new ebooks from big houses, which is a big percentage of the ebook sales they make (and that AuthorEarnings report in July said the Big Five still had an even bigger share of units than the indies), are routinely priced anywhere from 3 to 10 times what indie ebooks normally sell for. So that “share” if expressed as a “share of revenue” might be more like five or ten percent. It really couldn’t be more than 15%.

(In fairness to Howey, he tries to make the point that indie authors earn more from lower revenue because their cut is so much bigger and he makes the argument that they are actually earning more royalties than the big guys. He also tells me that he calls some S-corp and LLC publishers “uncategorized”, even though they are almost certainly indies, in his own attempt to be even-handed. In fairness to the industry, I will point out that his accounting doesn’t take unearned advances into consideration, and since most sales of big house ebooks are of authors who don’t earn out, that lack of information really moots the whole analysis about what authors earn. Another big shortcoming of the comparison is that most published authors are getting a much more substantial print sale than most indie authors.)

But indie authors on Amazon are the industry high-water mark of indie share and ebook share. They are almost entirely books without press runs or sales forces, so they are almost entirely absent from store shelves. And they are also entirely narrative writing.

The facts, apparently, are that even heavy ebook readers still buy and consume print. There is not a lot of clear data about whether “hybrid readers” make their print-versus-digital choice categorically or some other way. There is some anecdata suggesting that some people read print when it is convenient (when they’re home) and digital when it is not. There are a number of bundling offers to sell both (offered by publishers and one called “Matchbook” from Amazon), which certainly seems to say that publishers believe there’s a market of people who would read the same book both ways at the same time!

What that all would seem to say is that the retailer selling ebooks only is seriously disadvantaged from getting searches for books from the majority of readers.

Do we have any independent evidence that selling to the digerati only — selling ebooks only — might limit one’s ability to sell ebooks? I think we do. It would appear that B&N has sold roughly the same number of Nooks as Apple has iPads. (This equivalence will probably not last since Nook sales seem to be in sharp decline.) That is somewhat startling in and of itself, since Apple is perhaps the leading seller of consumer electronics and B&N was entirely new to that game. Nook also seems to have — at least for a while — sold more ebooks than Apple. (This “fact” may also be in the rear view mirror with the apparent collapse of Nook device sales.) I will be so bold as to suggest that this is not because Nook has superior merchandising to the iBookstore. More likely it is because the B&N customer is a heavier reader than the Apple customer and prefers to do his or her book shopping — and even his or her book device shopping — with a bookseller.

[Correction to the above paragraph made on 11 Sept. I misheard and therefore misreported something that was caught by a reader in the comments below, but I should also correct here.  Apple has sold ~200M iPads but are only roughly 12% of the ebook market whereas B&N has sold only about 1/20th the number of Nooks and are about 18% of the ebook market. That fact makes little sense to anyone in Silicon Valley but speaks to how book audiences really behave. We all know a very high % of Nook owners are active store buyers.]

There is one more huge distinction between books and the other media and it is around the motivation of the consumer. While sometimes TV or movies might be consumed for some educational purpose, most of the time the motivation is simply “entertainment”, as it is with music. While analysis of prior video or music consumed and enjoyed might provide clues to what should be next, figuring out what book should be next is a much more complex challenge.

And the clues don’t just come from prior books consumed and enjoyed. Books are bought because people are learning how to cook or do woodworking, or because they are traveling to a distant place and want to learn a new language or about distant local customs, or because they are going to buy a new house or have suddenly been awakened to the need to save for retirement. You can’t really suggest the next book to buy to many consumers without knowing much more about them than knowing their recent reading habits would tell you.

But not only do (most of) the ebook-only retailers not know whether you’re moving or traveling, they don’t even know what you searched for when you were looking for print. And, even if they did know, operating in an ebook-only environment would make many of the best suggestions for appropriate books to address everyday needs off limits, because many of those books either don’t exist in digital form or aren’t as good as a YouTube video to satisfy the consumer’s requirements.

Indeed, it is the sheer “granularity” of the book business — so many books, so many types of books, so many (indeed, innumerable) audiences for books — that makes it so different from the other media.

Of course, there is one company — Google — that is not only in the content business and the search business but which also handles “granularity” better than any company on earth, down to the level of the attributes and interests of each individual. Google not only would know if you were moving or traveling, they would be in a great position to sell targeted ads to publishers with books that would help consumers with those or a million other information needs. (They also know about all your searches on YouTube!) But because Google’s retailing ambitions are bounded by digital, they are walking past the opportunity to be the state-of-the-art book recommendation engine. They’re applying pretty much the same marketing and distribution strategy across digital media at Google Play. They aren’t seeing that book customers are both print and digital. They aren’t seeing that books are, indeed, different.

When the day comes that they do, this idea will look better to them that it might have at first glance.

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